Short Story: The Ghost Waltz

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“Dance me, Pop-Pop,” I beg, wrapping my whole hand around just one of his thick, calloused fingers.

“Aren’t you getting too big for this, sweetheart?” he teases, but I know he doesn’t really mean it.

I shake my head, my golden-brown braids whipping back and forth, “Never,” I answer, followed by “Please?” Being winsome has always been a special talent of mine, and as a five-year-old, I’m at my peak.

“Alright,” he says, and he envelops each of my hands in one of his, and helps me balance while I place one of my bare feet on top of each of his sturdy shoes.

I love his shoes. His work shoes, he calls them. I know he has shiny wing-tips for when we go to Sunday brunch at the officers’ club, but his every-day shoes are made of brown leather and have thick soles, and sometimes Grandmom has to remind him not to track dirt all over her clean floor.

(He always answers her with the words “Yes, dear,” half-spoken and half-sung, and she can tell he’s not really listening, and when she swipes at him with a dish towel and scowls at him, we all know she’s really saying “I love you.”)

While we dance, he hums a waltz that is as familiar to me as the way the purple striped cotton sheets feel against my sun-tanned skin when I slide into bed after my bath at night. I don’t know its name.

“You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he tells me, as we sway in circles around the dining room.

“I love you, Grandpop,” I reply.

Hours later, when I’m playing with blocks underneath the baby grand piano, and I stand up too quickly and bang my head, my grandfather is there, gathering me into his arms and drying my tears with a white cotton handkerchief.

He holds me in his lap and hums the waltz, then, too.

* * *

“Dance with me?” I ask.

My grandfather wrinkles his unruly eyebrows. “You don’t want to dance with your old Grandpop,” he protests, but he doesn’t really mean it.

It’s my sweet sixteen, and he’s rented the hall at the officers’ club for my party. My mother and grandmother are across the room, pretending not to watch us, and my father – well, he’s never been part of the equation.

“Yes, I do,” I insist, and I really do mean it.

“Alright,” he agrees and heaves himself out of the captain’s chair he’d claimed hours before. I glimpse the folded newspaper with the crossword puzzle hidden under his empty dinner plate, and I grin, but I don’t betray his secret.

The DJ pauses the endless list of pop songs to play the waltz I’d requested earlier in the night. Apparently it’s a standard tune for father-daughter dances, but I still don’t know the title of the tune.

I don’t ride on my grandfather’s feet any more. Instead, I follow his lead as we swirl in a graceful circle, and I smile when I hear him humming along with the song.

When the music ends, he strokes my hair. “Thank you, sweetheart,” he whispers.

My answer is a gentle kiss to his whiskery cheek, just after I breathe into his ear, “The answer to fifteen down is ‘zephyr.'”

* * *

“Got enough energy for one more dance, Grandpop?” I ask at the party to celebrate my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. He’s danced with Grandmom and my mother, my aunts, and all my cousins, but I want to be last.

“I think I can manage one more,” he says.

The waltz – our waltz – is slow enough that he can manage it, but his steps falter, and I have to take the lead. To his credit, he allows it, and if there’s any sense of indignity, he never lets it show.

When the music stops, he kisses me on the forehead. “You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he says, his voice still strong inside a weakening body.

The old endearment makes me misty, and I bury my face in his lapel. He smells the way he always has: Ivory soap and Aqua Velva, and somehow it seems vitally important that I memorize his scent.

* * *

At his funeral, I watch my mother and my aunts go to the coffin and stroke my grandfather’s silvery hair, but even though the body lying there in state looks like him, his essence has long since left.

I hold my fiancé’s hand so tightly that he loses feeling in it, but he doesn’t complain. Instead, he pries my fingers loose and wraps his arm around me, holding me close and offering me a cloth handkerchief.

Sometimes I think I fell in love with him because of those cloth handkerchiefs. I’m half convinced he and my grandfather are the only men who still use them.

Used, I correct my own thoughts. Used. My fiancé uses hankies, but my grandfather used them.

Back at the house, after, while everyone is exchanging memories and trading stories, I slip away from the group and go into my grandfather’s den. I curl up in his ancient leather chair and fiddle with the photo-cube on his desk.

The invitation to my wedding is pinned to his cork board, along with the photo of my fiancé and me standing in his garden – my proposal had come as the love of my life and I were helping my grandfather pick tomatoes.

The old man had helped set it up – arranging things so I’d find the ring box tucked in against the fragrant vines.

I open the drawer where I know he stashed those tins of hard candies – lemon, usually, but sometimes coffee flavored – and find a wrapped package with my name on it. I know I should wait, but it seems like he wanted me to find it, so I tear the tissue paper apart.

It’s a CD. The track listing has one tune circled in black sharpie, and I don’t even have to put the disc in the player to know it’s our waltz. For the first time, I learn the title, and I have to smile through my tears.

It’s called The Ghost Waltz.

I play it obsessively for the next six days, until I, too, know it well enough to hum every note. Then I pack the disc away until I need it again.

Mom and Grandmom look worried, but my partner understands.

* * *

It’s the night before my wedding and there’s a full moon shining brightly over the officers’ club. The base is closed now, and the facility has been turned into a hotel and event center, but the owners are long-time friends of my family, and they’ve made sure our group is the only one in residence.

My almost-husband is asleep in a bed so tall I have to use a step-stool to climb in it (we’ve been living together for over a year, so sleeping apart seems silly and contrived) and I know I should be sleeping, too, but I can’t get my grandfather’s waltz out of my head.

I’d wanted him to be at my wedding.

I’d wanted him to dance that waltz with me.

I slip into my wedding dress and stare at my reflection in the mirror. I’m in my twenties now, but I swear I still see the echo of five-year-old me in the oval glass.

Maybe it’s the song in my head, or maybe it’s the moonlight, but I leave our suite and padd barefoot down the grand staircase to the main ballroom.

There’s a figure waiting in the center of the parquet dance floor, and my breath catches in my throat, because the perfect posture and slight paunch could only belong to one person.

As I approach, the moon shifts, and the figure solidifies. He’s wearing a tuxedo, but his work shoes are on his feet.

“Dance me, Pop-Pop?” I demand, using the words of my child-self.

His calloused hands wrap around mine, and he helps me balance one of my bare feet on each of his shoes.

We hum the waltz together as he spins me around the room, and when we get to the end, and my feet are on the ground again, he pulls me close for a hug that smells faintly of Aqua Velva and Ivory soap.

“You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he says, his voice rough and ethereal at once.

“Always,” I respond.

The clouds cover the moon and I am left alone in the darkened room, surrounded by bunting in my wedding colors.

I sink to my knees and start to cry, and suddenly I’m in bed and my fiancé is soothing me in hushed tones that turn first to soft caresses and then to kisses, until,  in the first hours of our wedding day, we are making tender love on the soft white sheets.

* * *

Hours later, it’s time for our first dance as a married couple and my husband – my husband – takes the MC’s microphone, and makes an announcement.

“For most of her life,” he says, “my wife had another man in her life: her grandfather. He was her mentor and teacher and best friend. She was his sidekick and student and princess. They shared a song that they used to dance to. Last week, I found a CD on my desk with a track marked in sharpie and a post-it note instructing me to ‘dance to this when you marry her.’ Well, I’ve married her – or more accurately, she’s married me, and now we’re going to dance.”

He returns the mic to its rightful owner and returns to my side. “I love you,” he tells me.

The music starts, and I’m immediately touched and teary, resting my head against my husband’s chest (he smells like cashews and fresh apples) while we dance, and when I start to hum along, he surprised me by doing the same.

What’s the song? You ask.

Isn’t it obvious?

It’s The Ghost Waltz.


Author’s Note: This story was inspired by the song “The Ghost Waltz,” by Fats Kaplin, which I stumbled across quite by accident on Friday night. Play the video below to hear it.

Shameless Self-Promotion: The Bathtub Mermaid – Spooky Short Stories

 Copyright : Andrey Bortnikov (Follow)

 

I’m dealing with some severe autoimmune issues this autumn, some of which mean I have either no brain or no energy to write on any given day. That’s been the case for a good chunk of the week, but yesterday, I didn’t write because I spent half the day stitching three of the stories I’ve already written and posted into an episode of my podcast.

If you want to hear my friends and me doing audio interpretation of “The Rules,” “The Lady of La Paz,” or “Egaeus’s Protege,” please click through to:

The Bathtub Mermaid: Spooky Short Stories

The total runtime of the episode is about twelve minutes.

Happy HorrorDailies!

 

 

SVM Seeks Virgin

Vampire Dating

 

SVM, blonde/blue seeks Type O. I’m experienced; you’re not. Rh+ OK. I never drink… wine, but I’ll open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot for the right woman. 21+ No smoking or cats.

In the old days, hookups were a lot simpler, a lot more discrete. We’d just put a few lines in the appropriate category of the Personals section of the local underground newspaper.

It was effective, to a point. At least until the early 90s. But newspapers don’t vet the people who read the Personals. (For that matter, they don’t vet the people who place them, either. If the credit card works, the ad goes in.)

Why does that matter? Because virgin blood isn’t just the sweetest thing that could ever land on an undead tongue, it’s also got this special kick that lets you enjoy a sunrise right after you’ve imbibed. Sure, some vamps claim you’ll still burn; you just won’t care, but I’ve experienced it myself.

Good evening… I’m Sergei, and I want to give you the last love bite you’ll ever remember. I enjoy moonlight walks on the beach, gazing up at the stars, and sleeping on black satin sheets. You are voluptuous, dark haired, dark eyed, and have never given up your most precious gift. I am an old-world gentleman, castle included.  Let us meet and see if your blood sings to mine.

As the internet grew in popularity, we went online, in much the same way the living did. Pictures were challenging at first – conventional cameras still used silver nitrate, which meant no permanent images, but when photography went digital all bets were off.

Video dating was more difficult for us. The average bicentennarian hasn’t had a lot of on-camera experience, and you can’t really hold your vic – uh – partner in thrall over Skype. Those of us who have lived beyond two hundred soon realized we needed our own network, and Fangbook was launched in the mid 2000’s just to help.

You’d be surprised at the number of living men and women who fantasize about feeding a vampire’s bloodlust. Or maybe you wouldn’t.

Lucas (223, Musician). Don’t B♯. Don’t B♭. Just B. And if you happen to be B- swipe right. We’ll make beautiful music together.

Technology, of course, brings constant change, even for vampires. These days we have a smartphone app called Biter. Vampires seeking willing donors or longer term companionship can post their profiles, and so can living humans who are looking to experience a whole new level of ‘necking.’

We’re even developing an enhancement to Apple’s health app that will verify blood type with the press of a thumb on a portable dongle.

As for me? I’m still rather old-school. Underground papers may not be the fastest, shiniest method of finding a date, but the QR code I run with my ads lets potential hook-ups get to know the real me, beyond the two-line blurb.

SVM, blonde/blue ISO virgin female for a night of firsts. You don’t have to be O-neg to have a positively howling time with me. Must love wolves.

Sunday Brunch: The Ghosts We Choose

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_captblack76'>captblack76 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

I’m cheating a little with this post, because I’m really just providing an excerpt to this month’s Sunday Brunch column over at Modern Creative Life.

Here’s the excerpt:

A bottle of Clinique make-up, left in the medicine cabinet in my guest bathroom, smells like clay, but it also smells like Halloween, 1976, when my mother costumed me as Pocahontas and used her normal color to darken my fairer skin. (Cultural appropriation wasn’t a hot topic, back then, but even if it had been, my costume was an homage, not a mockery.)

Forty years later, that scent is so closely associated with my mother that when I see her and she no longer carries that aroma (because she’s long since changed her make-up routine), I have to stop and remind myself that she’s the same woman who bore me, raised me, and whose opinion is still, always, vitally important.

And here’s the link to the complete piece. Sunday Brunch: The Ghosts We Choose

Let ‘Em In? No way!

Paul McCartney and Wings - Let 'Em In

 

Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Do me a favor
Open the door and let ’em in

I am nine years old and in the fourth grade, and I am already on my way to becoming nocturnal, but it’s not because I’m afraid of the dark and try to wait for dawn before I sleep (that comes later, and only infrequently).

No, it’s because I have a vivid imagination and a mind like a steel trap (my mother says) and I remember things at the most inconvenient times.

For example, two years ago, I was on this kick where I was reading a lot of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, and even though none of them were particularly scary, there was this one line that made me afraid of my own bedroom. “Frank! Look! The room has no floor!”

The truth was that the house they were investigating had a room where the whole floor was an elevator, and so all the furniture was bolted to the walls. Not a problem, except that in our apartment above my mother’s store, my desk was built in, and my carpet was blood red, and at night I couldn’t see the floor.

I am only seven, so it doesn’t occur to me that my bed and nightstand are not bolted to the floor, so I make a point of leaving socks and things in a trail from the bedroom door to the bathroom door. Just in case.

Sister Suzie, brother John
Martin Luther, Phil and Don
Brother Michael, auntie Gin
Open the door and let ’em in, yeah

I am ten years old and the show PM Magazine, the one with Chef Tell, is running a show about how Paul McCartney is really dead, and if you play the Beatles’ records backwards there are all these codes and stuff recorded in the layers of the tracks, and he was barefoot on that one album cover, and the license plate on the car said 28 IF.

My mother insists that Paul McCartney isn’t really dead, or a ghost, or whatever, that he’s really just hiding in some other country (Japan? I think? Or Australia??) because of drugs, and he’s got this band called Wings.

I want to believe her, but I don’t want to believe her because the spooky story is fun.

But late at night when I can’t sleep, especially if my mother and her husband have been fighting, I turn on my white clock-radio – my first grown-up radio – and listen to the pop station, and while I kind of like it when Eddie Rabbitt sings “I Love a Rainy Night,” when Paul McCartney and Wings sing “Let ’em In,” the scratchy part of his voice makes me not want to turn out the light or go to sleep.

Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell

I am sixteen, and I hate going to sleep, because I can’t avoid nightmares, even though I have nothing, really, to be stressed about. I’ve given up listening to music to help me sleep, because it doesn’t, and switched to talk radio. My usual MO is to keep the volume super-low so that I have to strain to hear it, and the act of straining makes me tired and I fall asleep.

But lately I’ve become hooked on the Larry King radio show, and tonight Robert Englund, who plays Freddy Krueger, is on his show and when people call in he talks to them in Freddy’s voice. I want to sneak out of my room and call in, but the hallway is dark and my parents are sleeping, and bed is safe, right?

Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell

I am thirty-eight years old, and I’m home alone with my two dogs, Zorro and Miss Cleo, because Fuzzy is on a business trip in Florida. Two days before, the first stick showed a pink plus sign and the second one blinked “pregnant” at me, and I freaked out a little, but I was so happy. But earlier tonight I started cramping and spotting, and I called my friend Kathy to come hang out with me – she and Scott both came and made me laugh and distracted me.

Fuzzy will be home late in the morning, and we’ll go to the doctor, but right now, I’m alone and I’m scared I’ve miscarried and equally frightened that I didn’t, and just as I’m falling asleep, Miss Cleo growls at nothing. I’m pretty sure she’s dreaming, but she sleeps with her eyes open, so I’m never sure.

(I did miscarry.)

Do me a favor
Open the door and let ’em in

I am forty-six years old, but I’m also still seven and nine and ten and sixteen and thirty-eight, and there are nights when, even though my husband is sleeping peacefully beside me, and our dogs (different dogs now: Perry, Max, Teddy, and Piper) are also sleeping, that I can’t fall asleep because I keep falling into nightmares, so I read on my kindle and wait for dawn.

Or I wake up Fuzzy, because I’m terrified of something I dreamed, even though I don’t remember what it was, and  he holds me until I’m calm, and understands that I can’t talk about it until the magic of morning takes it all away.

And in the back of my head, that creepy Paul McCartney song is always playing.

Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Do me a favor
Open the

 

Short Story: Under Glass

 

SFO CoffinWhen Joe had finally agreed to spend the first weeks of his retirement remodeling their house, he’d assumed that Molly meant redoing the kitchen, adding the island she’d always wanted, and increasing the cabinet space. He’d never expected that he’d be renting heavy equipment and hiring contractors to demolish the garage in order to expand it and add a second story with mother-in-law quarters.

He’d never expected that he’d be working with the guys he’d hired to haul away chunks of the cement that had formerly been the garage floor, or dig out a new basement.

He’d certainly never expected to find a small, sealed coffin under the layers of mud and sand and concrete.

A coffin that still held a body.

Actually, it reminded him of that fairy-tale his daughter had loved when she was younger. The one about the girl in the glass casket. The one who wakes up when the prince kisses her.

Except…

Except this coffin wasn’t made of glass. Instead, it was formed from lead and bronze, with a pair of diamond-shaped glass windows set into the top. And it was old. Decades at least. Maybe centuries.

Except this girl, the one inside the box, wasn’t an adolescent on the cusp of womanhood. Rather the pale face he saw centered in the top window, the one framed by jet-black curls adorned with a bit of lace, was cherub-cheeked and babyish, and he didn’t think she’d been a day over three when she died.

Funny, she didn’t look dead.

She looked for all the world as though she’d just been tucked in for an afternoon nap, the dark eyelashes of her closed eyes resting against the soft skin of those adorable cheeks. Those pinch-able cheeks.

“You have such fat, pink, cheeks, Gracie. I’m going to eat you up!” Joe bounced his five-year-old daughter on his knee, laughing with the child as she giggled. “I’m going to stuff an apple in your mouth, and roast you in the oven,” he teased.

Gracie howled with little-girl laughter, understanding that her father was only teasing, and demanding to know, “What else are you gonna do to me, Daddy?”

“I’m going to wrap you up so tight…” This was their bedtime routine. Molly was in charge of bath time and pajamas, but Joe handled Storytime and tucking in.

“Night-night, Daddy.”

“G’night, Gracie.”

But Gracie wasn’t a little girl anymore. She was twenty, off studying at Tulane, with father-daughter bedtime stories far behind her.

Still, Joe thought, his own daughter had once looked just like this child when she was sleeping. Peaceful. Innocent. A little girl taking her afternoon nap.

Only the white rose clutched in her tiny fist told a different story. The white rose and the nameplate on the foot of the box. He reached out with a gloved hand to rub the grime away: Edith, it read. No last name.

Poor kid.

He stared down at the girl under glass for a few more minutes, before he realized that the sun had gone down, and the men he’d found waiting outside Home Depot at six AM on Tuesday, the same men who had found their own ride out to his place for the two days since, had already jumped in their truck and gone home.

He really ought to call someone.

He really shouldn’t just leave her there, in the open. What if some kid wandered in? What would the neighbors think?

Joe left the place that used to be his garage, and went to grab a tarp from the back of his Jeep, noticing that Molly’s Prius wasn’t in the driveway. He wondered where she – oh, right – it was Thursday. She taught at the adult school on Thursdays. She’d left a lasagna out to defrost… he was supposed to start it in time for dinner. Funny how physical labor made you forget stuff like that.

He was about to swing the canvas cloth over the coffin when he caught sight of her face, found her fathomless black eyes staring at him from under the glass.

Wait a second. Hadn’t they been closed before?

Joe dropped the tarp over the casket and retreated from the remnants of his garage. The back of his neck had that cold, prickly feeling, and it was pretty dark out. Better to get inside, start dinner so it’d be ready when Molly got home, and figure out who you call to report a dead child in a coffin under your garage floor.

Was that something you dialed 9-1-1 for?

* * *

Friday morning rolled in with a violent rainstorm, which meant no work on the garage, but while Molly was upset about the delay, Joe was relieved. He hadn’t told her about the coffin. His wife was prone to having nightmares, and he didn’t want to be the cause of another sleepless night.

He’d waited until she left for work, and then he’d called the emergency line after all, because, really, who else would know what to do?

“Sir, this isn’t funny,” the operator informed him. “We have a major storm causing flooding at all the low-lying intersections, and can’t afford to waste time on pranksters.”

“I’m not a prankster,” Joe had insisted, and either she had sensed the anguish in his voice, or she had a friend she wished to twit, because she’d referred him to the county coroner instructing him to ‘ask for Charlie.’

It turned out that Charlie was actually Charlene, and she was also convinced it was some kind of a joke. Joe had gone out to the garage with his smartphone and snapped some pictures, texting them to the cell number she’d provided.

Two hours later, the coroner’s van arrived and a redheaded woman who appeared to be in her early fifties joined Joe in the torn-down garage, flanked by a ferret-faced man who said he was Jasper from the historical society, and a woman in a conservative skirt and veil, the contemporary habit of a nun, who said she was from the Sisters of Innocence and explained that her organization would handle the burial at no charge.

“Mr. Hunter,” the coroner greeted him. ” I’m Charlie. We spoke on the phone. I’m so sorry; this must have been quite upsetting for you.”

“It was definitely a surprise,” he replied, affably enough. “My wife doesn’t know.”

“I’m not surprised you found a coffin,” the historical society rep interrupted. “From the photos you sent, yours is about a hundred and fifty years old… this whole area was a cemetery then. The bodies were relocated around the turn of the century, though… ground’s too wet… coffins kept floating to the surface.”

Joe had no way to respond to that, so he ignored it, except to say, “It’s not mine.” And then, “It’s here… under the tarp.”

But Jasper continued. “She clearly came from a wealthy family. Lead. Bronze. Glass. This thing was built to last.”

Joe turned his back to Jasper.

Charlie did the honors, removing the drape, and the three adults all looked into the window at the still, small, form inside. Her eyes were closed again (or was it ‘still?’) Joe saw, but her mouth looked a little different – the lips seemed redder and plumper – or maybe he was just imagining things.

“Alright,” the coroner said. “Jasper, if you’ll give me a hand moving her, we’ll get going. I think Sister Celeste has some paperwork for you to do, sir.”

The nun had been murmuring a prayer over the casket, and she took a moment to gaze through the window before allowing Joe to direct her toward the house. “Such a beautiful child. So well preserved…”

“It’s because the coffin’s sealed” Jasper said. “No air, no deterioration.”

Joe decided he didn’t care much for Jasper.

* * *

Joe Hunter had never been a great cook, but he figured if he was going to tell his wife what had been removed from where the garage used to be, he’d better ply her with food and drink first. The morning’s rain had left a clear, crisp, night in its wake. Chilly, but not too cold for barbecue. He had a pitcher of margaritas mixed and the steaks ready to go on the grill as soon as Molly arrived home.

The cold pricklies came back at about the same time his phone rang.  Charlie from the coroner’s office calling to tell him that something had happened.

“Happened?” Joe had no idea why she was calling him.

“When we got to the morgue… when we opened the casket… the child… she was gone.”

Joe had no idea what to say, but it didn’t matter, because Molly walked in just then, carrying a white rose and smiling like she had on their last anniversary when he’d given her that string of real pearls.

“Do I smell charcoal?” she asked, and lifted her face to his for a kiss.

“Yeah,” he said. “I thought… we won’t have many more nights warm enough.” He thumbed the phone to an inactive state and set it down on the counter, face down. “Margarita?”

“Perfect.”

They ate and laughed, and he finally told her about the coffin and showed her the pictures. “It almost looks like her eyes are open in this one,” Molly observed.

Joe agreed that it really did.

They went to bed early, but they didn’t go to sleep because Molly was reading a chapter of some novel on her Kindle and he was using his iPad to send an email to Gracie. “Come home for Thanksgiving break,” he requested. “Your mother and I both miss you.”

Around midnight, after Molly had turned off her light and rolled on her side to sleep, Joe got up to check the house. It was his ritual, one his father had performed long ago. Make sure all the doors are locked, prep the coffee-maker for the morning. Hit the bathroom one more time.

He was passing Gracie’s room on his way back to bed when he heard it. Soft, so soft it was quieter than a dream, a lick of childish laughter.

The kind of laughter a three-year-old might produce.


Notes: I’ve had the concept of “Under Glass” in my head for years. When I went looking for art to accompany this story, however, I stumbled upon a true story about a coffin that was found under the floor of a garage in San Francisco, in the Lone Mountain neighborhood. I know the area because I had classes in the Lone Mountain campus of University of San Francisco, once upon a time. Here’s the link to the actual story: Little Girl Found in Coffin

 

Flash-Fiction: Toxic to Dogs

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_tarasov'>tarasov / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

“Hey, who brought the brownies?” Yvette leaned over the picnic table and breathed in the heady scent of chocolate and… something else. “Can I have one?”

Thea passed her a spatula, “Get one for me, too? I’m desperate for a sugar fix.”

“Sure thing.” The small brunette scooped out a brownie for each of them, served casually on folded-in-quarters paper towels. They had plates, but the towels would double as napkins, and they broke down faster. Biodegradeable, and all that.

“Dude, brownies!” the boys – Claude and Jason – reached for the confections but Yvette yelped and raced away clutching her napkin-wrapped treasure close to her chest.

“Get your own!” she shouted. “They’re on the picnic table!”

The afternoon wore on, and the five friends splashed in the cold waters of the creek and hiked in the nearby woods. At dusk, they gathered around the campfire for hamburgers and baked beans, and more brownies.

“Seriously,” Yvette asked, having her third one. “Where did these come from. The more I eat, the hungrier I get.”

Claude and Jason shared a look and some awkward laughter. “Actually…” the former began, pausing only to push his floppy black hair away from his face, “Greta brought them over this morning. Said she was sorry she wouldn’t be able to make it before moonrise.”

“Greta? Greta who mixes weed into green smoothies Greta?” Yvette had never really gotten along with her, and things had been worse since she and Jason had begun dating. Greta had wanted Jason badly. “I had no idea she could bake. Maybe she’s useful after all. Pass me another?”

“Should you be eating so many?” Claude  asked. “I thought you were allergic to chocolate.”

Jason slung his arm around Yvette’s shoulder and nuzzled her neck. Addressing Claude he said, “Dude, she’s a big girl. Let her be.” Into his girlfriend’s ear, he whispered. “Yvie, baby, Greta’s not so bad, really. She can’t compete with you, anyway. Loosen up.”

In the light of the rising moon, Yvette’s eyes glittered. “You want loose? I saw hoof-prints, the other side of the creek. Burgers are great and all, but… nothing beats fresh venison.”

“Careful, Yvie. You know we shouldn’t shift when we’re high.” Claude warned. Across the fire, the expression on Thea’s face implied silent agreement.

“I’m not high,” Yvette protested, giggling. “Just a little buzzed. Who’s with me? A quick swim in the creek to clear our heads, and then we hunt.” She was already kicking off her shoes and peeling off her shirt, reveling in the sensation of the crisp night air on her bare skin. She rolled her neck, and let her body morph into its natural form – thick fur, pointed ears, a bushy tail, and razor-sharp claws.

As one, the others followed suit, stripping and shifting, just like Yvette had.

The four werewolves dashed down the hill to the creek, where they splashed like puppies in a play pool. When they were wet enough, cold enough, and clear-headed enough, they rumbled up the bank on the far side, and took off into the woods.

Claude scented the first deer, and he, Jason, and Thea joined forces to take it down. As pack-leader, it was his job to know where everyone was, but the combination of marijuana, sugar, and fresh, hot, blood distracted him, and when Yvie changed directions, he lost her scent.

Alone, Yvie caught a different scent. The generic tang of Shifter resolved into  the more familiar Wolf and she went to investigate.

Greta  – at least it smelled like Greta – Yvette had never seen her true form, so she wasn’t entirely sure – stood on the edge of the creek, waiting, but there was another scent mingled with hers. Jason’s. Unmistakably, undeniably, Jason’s scent. Yvette could tell that the male note was from an article of clothing, and not the other’s fur, but it didn’t matter.  Her shifted brain identified Greta as a threat.

Still poised on the edge of the bank, Greta turned her head, having caught Yvie’s scent, in turn. She fixed her gaze on Yvette and growled, “Hey, puppy. Come to play?”

Yvette was many things, but a puppy wasn’t one of them. Fury and bloodlust coursed through her. Jealousy mixed with pot and chocolate and rage removed her inhibitions and fueled her attack with sugar-shocked strength. She leaped at the other female in a killing frenzy.

Claws ripped through fur and flesh. Yelps and screams filled moonlit night.

When the boys and Thea returned, bellies full of fresh game, they found little of Greta. A few stray bits of fur and flannel.

Yvie, on the other hand, had reverted to human form and was huddled in the brush, puking and shivering.

“Come on,” Claude urged. “We have to get her to a doctor.”

“Night doc at the clinic treats our kind,” Thea said. “I’ll get the car. You two help Yvie cover up and get moving.”

Thea drove while Claude called the clinic. The doc they knew would be waiting at the emergency room door.

Yvette rode the whole way with her head in Jason’s lap, his hand stroking her hair. Upon their arrival, the doctor whisked her away on a stretcher, while Jason, Thea and Claude were left to wait for their friend.

Hours later, the trio were allowed to join their friend in her room. She’d be staying overnight, the doc told them. For observation.

“Doc, I don’t get it,” Claude said. “We all had the brownies too. I know it’s bad to shift when you’re high but…”

“It wasn’t the pot… ” Yvie’s voice was weak, but they all turned toward her. “It was the chocolate. I should have stopped, Claude.” She hung her head so her friends couldn’t see her embarrassment. “My mother… she wasn’t pure Wolf. She was… she was half Husky.”

“So?” Jason asked the question.

“So when a hybrid shifter eats chocolate they go crazy and then they get crazy sick,” Claude explained.

Squeezing himself into his girlfriend’s hospital bed and wrapping himself around her protectively, Jason asked, “You’re a hybrid?” After Yvette nodded her confirmation, he continued. “I didn’t realize. You smell just like Wolf.”

“But I react like Dog, sometimes,” Yvie said quietly. “I ate Greta because I couldn’t stop myself, and then I got sick because of the guilt – she was a pack-mate even if she was a bitch.” Yvette used the word in the human way.

“So your chocolate allergy… it’s because… ?”

“Yep,” Yvette admitted ruefully. “It’s… it’s toxic to dogs.”

 

(This story was inspired by Thomas Jancis and Selena Taylor)

Egaeus’s Protege

xrayed teeth

 

“You teach literature don’t you?” The question was casual, conversational.

Her answer was a terrified bobbing of her head, up and down. In her defense, the metal bracket holding her mouth open and her tongue out of the way prevented actual speech.

“You know the Poe story ‘Berenice?'”

Another uncontrolled nod. Spittle formed at the corners of her mouth and he used a clean, white handkerchief to dab it away, then grimaced when he noticed that the bubbles of saliva held traces of blood from the metal cutting into the corners of her mouth. Untidy, that.

“He did it wrong, the man in that story.” He kept the conversation going as he reached for his favorite pliers. Needle-nose, with a cushioned grip. “He waited until she was buried before he went after his prizes. Miraculous that she still had all of them intact, especially considering the general lack of medical care or balanced diets in that era.”

The brunette with the wide brown eyes twisted frantically in her chair, but the zip-ties didn’t have a millimeter of give in them. She was there to stay.

“Grave-digging is such filthy work. Mud and bugs and gore… much easier to choose a live subject.” He leaned over her, pushed stray hair away from her sweat-soaked brow with almost tender care. “This is going to be… extremely painful.”

The pliers closed around his selected target. Smiling as he worked he twisted, tugged… pulled… until his quarry came free, root and all.

“Your dentist must be very good, my dear,” he said to the woman whose screams couldn’t quite make it past her throat. He lowered his voice to a reverent whisper: “You have lovely bicuspids.”

He let the small, white object fall into a metal bowl.

He expected that she’d react to the sound, but his expectation was met with great silence.

She had fainted.

No matter, she would wake soon enough, and they’d begin again. Wash, rinse, repeat, until he had all thirty-two.

Old Egaeus would have been proud.

Image copyright: radub85 / 123RF Stock Photo

The Lady of La Paz

Victorian Woman on a Shingle Beach by Lee AvisonThis is a true story… mostly.

Almost every year, during late spring or early summer, I visit my mother at her home in La Paz, BCS, Mexico.

Every so often, on these visits, I see something surprising.

One year, I even saw a ghost. I call her The Lady of La Paz.

The first time I saw the Lady was during the moon tide, when the water crept high up onto the beach, over the road, settling into pools of liquid silver.

An airplane was flying low over the bay, heading toward the airport – the last plane of the night – and as its angle of descent shifted, its lights caught the wisps of the clouds that were still shrouding the moon, protecting us from the full power of its glow.

Closer and closer the plane came, the bright front light changing the shapes of the shore, making creatures of the mangroves, and turning the shadows into living things.

And that’s when she made her first appearance.

Her face was hidden by a veil, but the shape of her hat was unmistakable, as were the lines of her turn-of-the-century dress. She held a parasol.

Her pace was steady, every step measured and sure, picking her way across the hard-packed sand, following the cone of light the airplane was casting ground-ward.

Just as she reached the point, the beam of light that held her began too thin, and her form to waver, as if she was dissipating on the faint breeze.

That’s when the clouds finally melted entirely away, and the Lady turned to stare out to sea.

She never looked my way. I never heard her voice.

Somehow, though, I knew – I knew – that she was waiting – searching – pining for her lost love.

I held my breath and watched, willing a man in a fedora to emerge from the waves and take her into his arms.

But of course he never came.

And when the moon left the sky to the sun, she faded into daylight.

When I told my parents about seeing the Lady, my mother mentioned that she’d seen her, too, on the nights of the full moon. My step-father, on the other hand insisted it was just a trick of the light, a happy merging of surf and fog and the lights from the plane.

I suppose I’ll never know for sure if the Lady of La Paz was real, or just a figment of my vivid imagination.

The part of me that lives in the world of computers and technology and social media knows that moonlit nights and moon tides can do funny things to our perceptions. The part of me that still, deep down, believes in the possibility of ghosts and soulmates wants there to still be magic in the world.

And who’s to say? Maybe the Lady was real at one point. In my head, she’s a pianist, a daughter of the family that owned the gold mine in El Triunfo, a student of Francisca Mendoza’s, and her lover is someone her parents would never approve of, a miner perhaps, or a seaman who helped to bring pianos to Baja Sur.

I keep telling myself that someday I’ll write their story, and then they will become real.

And until then?

If you’re walking on a certain stretch of beach in Baja Sur – the one with the view of El Mogote and the city lights in La Paz –  and you happen to find a full moon above you, and a moon tide lapping at your toes, keep careful watch as the last plane flies low over the water, en route to the airport.

You might see the Lady on her evening walk, holding her parasol just so, and waiting for her love.

 

 

Flash-fic: The Rules

monster under the bed

 

“Harry, remember, it’s only your first night. No one expects you to be perfect. Just go, growl, and get out.”

“I know, Mom.”

“Avoid the light… it won’t actually cause you to combust, but it can still hurt you. Remember what happened to Daniel? He was looking up at the closet ceiling when his assigned Child turned the light on. He was bulb-blind for days. Kept bumping into furniture… nearly got caught.”

“Avoid the light,” Harry repeated dutifully. “Got it, Mom.”

“And don’t forget about the Rules.”

“The rules?”

“Harry, we’ve been over this a fafillion times. If the Child is sipping water, they are Protected. If the Child has stuffed animals they are Protected…” His mother saw him roll his eye. “What?”

“The… stuffed animals… they aren’t Real animals, are they?”

“Of course not, Harry. They’re made of plush and foam and fluff.”

“Are you sure? Because Becky said – ”

“Harold M. Puddle, how many times have I told you that your sister makes up these stories just to bait you. The stuffed animals are not Real.”

“Then how can they Protect?”

“Because Children have Imaginations, Harry. And they Believe.”

“I thought Imagination was what we were made of.”

“Well, yes, but…”

“So if they can Believe we are under their beds or in their closets, and  Believe the stuffed animals are Real…” Harry had a scary thought. “Mom? What if they Believe that we aren’t Real?”

“Hush, youngster. You might as well wonder whether dragons really breathe fire. Some things simply Are.”

“Okay.” He straightened his posture and held out his claw-tipped paws. “Do I look fearsome enough?”

“Oh, very much so,” his mother assured. She pulled him close and gave him a slurpy kiss. “I’m so proud of you, Harry. You’re not even eight hundred yet, and you’ve been assigned your own Child. Just don’t forget about the Blankets.”

Harry knew about those, but his eye grew wider anyway. “Mom?”

“It’s the biggest Rule there is. A Child under Blanket Protection must never be touched. If your Child is under Blankets, what do you do?”

“Go, growl, get out,” Harry repeated the advice she’d given him a few minutes before. But he had a question, “What if… what if a Hand or a Foot isn’t Covered?”

“Well, some of the most experienced Monsters sometimes tickle a Child’s Foot or brush their fur against a Child’s Hand, but you shouldn’t try that on your first night. If the Child wakes up, and you get caught you’ll be sent back to remedial hunting. No one wants to spend their entire life chasing Cats and Dogs.”

Harry had met some of the remedial hunters. They ended up patchy and toothless. He definitely didn’t want that. “I promise not to try it… at least not tonight.”

“Good for you, Harry. Now remember, you’re scary, you’re stealthy, and you can make Children scream.”

“I’m scary,” he repeated. “I’m stealthy. And I can make Children scream.”  He took a deep breath. “Okay, Mom… here I go.”

He stepped onto the Ladder that would take him into the Attic and then into the Closet in the Child’s room, repeating it as he went. “Scary. Stealthy. Scream…”

As the Trap Door opened, Harry heard his mother’s voice, “I love you Harry.”

Harry grimaced happily.  I love you, too, Mom, he thought. Here I go.

 

Image copyright: innovatedcaptures / 123RF Stock Photo